Gateway to the Far East

A relatively new global market brimming with a wide array of niche opportunities, Singapore is poised for significant growth.

A relatively new global market brimming with a wide array of niche opportunities, Singapore is poised for significant growth.

for the business world, there are two Asias. There is the Asia of Japan and China, the past, present, and future economic powerhouses. Then there is the Asia that encompasses the vast swath of Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand - less developed than its counterpart, but full of people and promise. The gateway to that Asia lies in the tiny island nation of Singapore, where a government-mandated pro-business culture has made the country a beachhead for PR firms and their clients.

The agency field

Most major global agencies have established offices in Singapore to service predominantly US-based corporate clients in all of Southeast Asia. Technology and financial communications firms are well-represented, standing shoulder to shoulder with their generalist holding company-owned counterparts. Local Singapore agencies are in the
mix, as well, although high demand for local talent makes poaching a constant risk.

Singapore agencies were affected by the tech downturn, but the inherent growth opportunities in Asia tempered the decline. Marc Ha, GM of Text 100's Singapore office, says the agency has enjoyed double-digit yearly growth since it opened in 1998, including a 33% rise in revenue last year.

"The tech boom, in a sense, legitimized the PR market in Singapore," says Ha. "Tech companies [really] powered the PR engine."

The Asian market has become so integral that it has caused a shift in priorities for some tech companies. Tarun Deo, Text 100's business development VP in APAC, says while in the past an economic downturn would have meant a quick slashing of Asian PR budgets, now the opposite is true.

"If there's a budget issue in North America, what they're doing is taking the [PR] budget completely out of the US and still continuing to spend in Asia," he says.

Baxter Jolly, MD of Weber Shandwick's Singapore office, says health care and technology are the strongest growth areas and are fiercely competitive. Many international agency veterans have set up local boutiques that compete for the same clients. "You have very, very experienced people in the marketplace," Jolly says.

International unease over the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China caused some global companies and firms to shift APAC headquarters to Singapore, says Ketchum VP and Singapore veteran Kerrin Roberts. "It does play, for many companies, a pan-regional role," he says. "That gives it a level of vibrancy. And its main competitor is Hong Kong in that position."

Today, international agencies believe the market offers enough niche opportunities to go around. APCO Worldwide, which has had an Asian presence since 1989, last month opened a Singapore office. Asia CEO Chris Murck calls the move "a natural progression" and predicts that public affairs work for oil, gas, mining, and high-tech companies will be a growth sector.

Louise Harris, president and MD of Ruder Finn in Asia, says, "With the new integrated resorts and casinos being built in Singapore, I predict the hospitality and service industry sectors to increase."

Linda Fulford, who heads local firm Fulford PR, says the government's desire to become an "international sporting hub" means that sports PR is soon to expand.

And Christine Jones, regional MD and Singapore market leader for Burson-Marsteller, notes that "as Singapore seeks to reinvent itself and create more traction on the global stage," government is poised to be a strong growth area.

Corporate business

The largest corporate clients in Singapore are multinational corporations that use it as a base for all of their Southeast Asian PR programs. Global companies targeting only the Singapore market, as well as local companies, play a less lucrative, but still significant role.

One unique challenge is that a large number of Singapore's companies are partially government-owned (almost 40% of the stock market's value, according to the US State Department). That's a mixed blessing, to say the least.

"[Singapore has] virtually zero corruption or graft, which by Southeast Asian standards is exemplary," says Tristan Peniston-Bird, a director for Gavin Anderson with years of experience in the country. "But you pay for it by having a market... that has a very strong government [presence]."

The government presence is also felt in media. Singapore Press Holdings is a government-linked corporation that publishes the largest papers in the country, including The Straits Times, The Business Times, and the Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao (PR pros say including a "national interest" angle when pitching stories is imperative because of the government influence). International outlets like Dow Jones, CNN, CNBC, and Reuters also have significant presences there.

The PR industry is still developing in Singapore. "Only in the past decade has it gained credibility," says Humi Yoshikawa, senior director of marketing in APAC for software company SSA Global. "PR is not on par with other media sectors, but it is still catching up."

Korn/Ferry International, the global executive search firm, runs its APAC marketing communications out of Singapore, but does not retain a local PR firm.

"PR talent in the region is not yet 'best in class' compared to a global standard," says Marta Grutka, Korn/Ferry's regional director of marketing communications for APAC.

"This primarily stems from the relatively limited exposure to global standards and practices people have had in countries where the market has only been 'open' for a couple decades."

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